Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Global heating threshold at risk, climate leader warns

Alok Sharma, president of the COP26 climate summit, speaks at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Equilibrium is a newsletter from The Hill that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Sign up in the box below or online here to receive a copy each week.


The possibility of keeping global heating under a key 1.5-degree-Celsius threshold may be under threat, a global climate leader warned on Monday.

“We’ll either leave Egypt having kept 1.5 [degrees] alive or this will be the COP where we lose 1.5,” British climate adviser Alok Sharma said at the United Nations climate change conference (COP27).

Sharma, who presided over COP26 in Glasgow last year, told world leaders in Egypt on Monday that limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) had to be a “red line.”

The 1.5-degree-Celsius warming limit is a bar that countries said they hoped to stay below at the 2015 U.N. climate summit in Paris. At the time, they pledged to adhere to a 2-degree-Celsius, or 3.6-degree Fahrenheit, warming limit.

A recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that insufficient government action has put that 1.5-degree threshold out of reach.

“I have always said what we agreed in Glasgow and Paris has to be the baseline of our ambition,” Sharma said on Monday.

“We’ve got to stick to that commitment,” he continued. “We cannot allow any backsliding.” 

Stressing that “every fraction of a degree absolutely makes a difference,” Sharma called upon countries to define clearly how they plan to curb emissions.

“Even at 1.5 degrees we are still going to have devastating outcomes for many millions,” Sharma said. “And this cannot be the COP where we lose 1.5 degrees.” 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin.

Today we’ll begin with the restart in U.S.-China cooperation on climate issues, followed by a look at how Democrats’ Senate victory could help bolster sustainability initiatives. Plus: How growing grass could help decarbonize jet fuel.

US, China to resume climate collaboration 

The U.S. and China have agreed to resume their partnership on climate issues, following a Monday meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, our colleague Rachel Frazin reported.

Constructive communication: Biden “underscored” that the countries must work together to address global challenges, including climate change, according to a White House readout of the meeting. 

  • Biden and Xi met during the Group of 20 summit of the world’s wealthiest economies in Bali, Indonesia. 
  • “The two leaders agreed to empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts on these and other issues,” the readout stated. 
  • Other issues on which the two countries plan to collaborate include health and food security, as well as debt relief. 

A fraught partnership: The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs halted cooperation with the U.S. on military and climate matters in August, following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) trip to Taiwan.

Top emitters at the table: The two countries had previously agreed to collaborate on environmental issues at last year’s United Nations climate change conference (COP26).

  • China and the U.S. are, respectively, the largest and second-largest global emitters of greenhouse gasses. 
  • This year’s conference, COP27, began in Egypt last week.  

Facing an existential threat: “A lot is at stake,” Li Shuo, a Beijing-based policy adviser for Greenpeace, told The New York Times.  

Li said the U.S. and China needed to show they could put aside their differences to face the existential threat that climate change poses to the planet, according to the Times. 

Casual conversation: U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his counterpart Xie Zhenhua have engaged in no formal negotiations at the ongoing COP27, the Times reported.  

However, the two men have met casually at least seven times at the summit, an administration official told the newspaper.  

Welcome news at COP27: News that the U.S. and China would resume cooperation arrived just as COP27 delegates “were looking for a sign” that wealthy nations would invest further in fighting the climate crisis, according to Reuters.  

“The two biggest emitters need to be cooperative and ambitious,” Teresa Ribera, Spain’s climate minister, told Reuters. 

Democratic Senate win helps boost climate agenda

The Democrats’ victory in the tight Nevada Senate race assures that they will hold on to their razor-thin control of the Senate — and positions the party to strengthen its ongoing sustainability initiatives. 

  • Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) won reelection on Saturday.
  • While control of the House hasn’t been called (Republicans are favored to narrowly win it), the Nevada victory cements Senate Democrats’ majority, regardless of whether Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) wins his Dec. 6. runoff.

“Nevadans rejected the far-right politicians working to divide us,” Cortez Masto said in a victory speech in Las Vegas on Sunday. 

Implications for sustainability: While Republicans will have more power in the House come January, Democrats will retain control of key committees in the Senate — helping stymie GOP efforts targeting Wall Street moves around environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing.

It also bolsters Biden’s climate agenda, particularly around agriculture.

Agricultural opportunity: One immediate benefit of Senate majority status for Democrats is that it spells the end for Republican attempts to block $20 billion in climate funding for American farmers, Politico reported. 

It also gives Democrats a drivers-seat role in next year’s farm bill — billed on both sides as a major piece of climate legislation.

  • The Democrats will maintain control of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee.  
  • That gives them the power to largely set the agenda on the farm bill — though to get around a filibuster any legislation will have to be solidly bipartisan.

BLUNTING A REPUBLICAN CLIMATE-FINANCE BACKLASH 

Before his party’s midterm disappointments, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) had been expected to take over the Senate Banking Committee.

That would have given him a key post to continue his push against Wall Street firms and financial regulators that are making financial decisions based on climate risk, E&E News reported.

  • Speaking about whether there are “environmental responsibilities that the [Federal Reserve] should take on, I am completely, unequivocally, opposed to that direction,” Scott said in March. 
  • “I know that there’s a lot of attention being paid these days to ESG,” he added. “I think that is a bad direction for the Fed.” 

Now Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) — an outspoken supporter of the role of the finance industry in addressing climate change — will remain chair, limiting any Republican pushback on ESG to the House.

What about the House? Barring another surprise, Republicans are expected to narrowly take control of the House. 

If so, their new majority would give them the ability to call hearings around subjects like ESG, Biden administration oil and gas policies and climate politics more broadly.

  • A Republican majority would make vocal ESG opponent Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) the likely pick for Financial Services Chair, E&E reported. 
  • It would also make Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) the probable head of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Comer has promised to “conduct robust oversight of the Biden administration” policies like the cancellation of the moribund Keystone XL pipeline, The Hill reported.  

Next to the courts: Without control of the Senate, Republican promotion of fossil fuels is unlikely to be successful — shifting the focus to the courts and to state-level action in jurisdictions like Texas, Politico reported. 

  • Most of the 19 Republican attorneys general suing the Biden administration for its environmental policies will take office again next term. 

Target on Manchin: While the Democrats’ Senate majority is safe until 2024, that year will likely bring a wave of attacks against one of the party’s most controversial members: Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), as our colleague Alexander Bolton reported. 

  • Manchin’s surprise September support for Democratic climate legislation angered Republicans who had counted on him to kill it, according to recently reelected West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey (R). 
  • The climate spending package was sufficiently popular that Republicans were forced to largely ignore it in their midterm campaigns, as we reported. 

Decarbonization of US aviation ‘within reach’: study

Planting grass on unused agricultural lands could provide the U.S. with enough biomass feedstock to meet the liquid fuel demands of the country’s aviation sector, a new study has found. 

Making the most of ‘marginal’ land: Such a strategy could hasten the full decarbonization of U.S. aviation fuel by swapping conventional jet fuel with sustainably generated biofuels, according to the study, published on Monday in Nature Sustainability.  

  • Feedstock for these biofuels would be produced by planting a type of grass called miscanthus across 57.3 million acres — roughly the size of Wyoming. 
  • The grass would grow on what the authors described as “existing marginal agricultural lands” — or land that is poor in soil quality or often lays fallow. 

Decarbonization ‘within reach’: Cultivating miscanthus in such spaces could provide enough biomass to meet the U.S. aviation sector’s liquid fuel needs, according to the study.  

  • Those demands are expected to reach 30 billion gallons per year by 2040.
     
  • “It is within reach for the United States to decarbonize the fuel used by commercial aviation,” co-author Nazli Uludere Aragon, a recent PhD recipient from Arizona State University, said in a statement

Making air travel more sustainable: “If we are serious about getting to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, we need to deal with emissions from air travel,” added Uludere Aragon, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Maximizing yield and profit: Using models to identify where optimal marginal agriculture lands exist in the U.S., the authors explored whether grass varieties could thrive in these spots without additional water. 

  • They also looked at whether feedstock cultivation could harm the surrounding environment and examined the potential yields of different grass types.  
  • Lastly, they quantified the amount and cost of so-called “biojet” fuel that could be generated and distributed nationwide at scale. 

Settling on a reasonable price: Miscanthus ended up being the more promising feedstock, generating fuels that could meet the sector’s needs at an average cost of $4.10 per gallon, the researchers found. 

  • While conventional jet fuel is usually only about $2 per gallon, the scientists said that $4.10 becomes more reasonable when accounting for potential emissions reductions. 
  • The authors also noted that 2022 jet fuel prices have varied from $2 to $5 per gallon due to fluctuations in supply and demand. 

To read the full story, please click here

Monday Miscellanies

Beer companies may be partly to blame for droughts, democrats from Appalachia call for stricter mining safety standards and a major plastic polluter is on track for a tax

Beer battle brews over water 

  • Worsening droughts are leading to local resentment of the heavy water use by Mexico’s major beer companies — like Heineken, Tecate and Corona — for essentially exporting scarce water from dry regions, The New York Times reported. “You’d open the tap and there wouldn’t be a drop of water [as beer companies] produced and produced and produced,” one resident of the northern Mexican metropolis of Monterrey told the Times. 

Appalachia senators call out delay in mining safety standards 

  • Five Democratic senators from Appalachian states wrote to the federal mine safety regulator Monday, over a delay in setting new standards for exposure to a toxic compound, our colleague Zack Budryk reported. The compound, silica, has been linked to ailments such as silicosis, black lung and progressive massive fibrosis.  

Plastic tax passes in Philippines 

  • A landmark tax on single-use plastics has passed the lower house of Congress in the Philippines — a major plastic polluter that discards 163 million plastic bags per day, Reuters reported. About 80 percent of global ocean plastic comes from Asian rivers, with the Philippines composing around a third of that, according to Reuters. 

That’s it for today. Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for more and explore other newsletters by signing up here. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Tags 2022 midterms Senate Alok Sharma biofuels Catherine Cortez Masto Climate change climate crisis COP27 global warming US-China relations

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